Some of the comments on Moxie's post today have me thinking about work and home expectations, and thinking in particular about the extent to which we let our guilt about "wanting it all" sabotage us.
Now, to a certain extent, I agree that you can't "have it all"- but I also think a lot depends on how you define "it all". I don't think I am trying to have "it all" right now. I am trying to be a good mother, have a reasonably satisfying career, and have good relationships with the family and friends who matter to me. I am not trying to be super fit, or look as good as I could every day, or be a gourmet chef, or keep a spotlessly clean house, or grow all my own vegetables, or.... you get the idea. I absolutely agree that something has to give when you have kids, but I don't agree that the something that has to give is necessarily your career.
When I say this to women who don't have kids yet, I sometimes hear "but I can't imagine giving up my underwater basket weaving!" To which I reply: if underwater basket weaving is still important to you after you have kids, you won't give it up. Motherhood has been a strict filter on my life. It has shown me with stunning clarity what really matters to me and what doesn't. The things that matter get done. The things that don't really matter... well, they don't always get done. In fact, they just drop off my radar screen altogether.
This sounds so simple, but it ignores the big role that guilt can play in our lives as working moms. How often do we do things and work or at home because we feel guilty? It is fine to stay late at the office sometimes- but only do it if it is what you want or need to do. Don't do it because your colleagues make you feel guilty about leaving at a reasonable hour. It is fine to decide that you'll make all of your baby's food from scratch- but again, only do it if that truly is a priority for you. Don't do it because some other mom has decided to do it for her baby and you feel guilty for buying little jars of puree at the grocery store.
I think sometimes we get caught in a terrible guilt feedback loop. We feel guilty about leaving "early" when colleagues are staying late. So we stay late. And then we feel guilty because we aren't home in time to make dinner for our kids. So we decide to throw an elaborate play date and make all the food from scratch. And then we feel guilty because we haven't called our best friend in ages. So we go out to lunch with her and are late for a meeting at work.... and then we're right back at the start.
I say we should just stop it. Stop feeling guilty about things that don't really matter to you. Take advantage of the clarity that motherhood provides about what matters- i.e., the things that you consistently make time to do. Ditch the other things without guilt.
I won't pretend that I have this all figured out, or that I go through life without ever feeling guilty. That isn't true at all. But I do try to stop and think about why I'm feeling guilty. If I'm feeling guilty because I am not doing something that really matters to me, then I will try to change things to fix that. If I'm feeling guilty because of other people's expectations, then I try to let it go.
Trust me, this gets easier with practice. I was talking to a colleague in the lunch room about Petunia's recent back to back to back illnesses, and another woman wandered up and expressed surprise- no, shock- that Petunia was already in day care at 10 months old. There was a time when that would have brought on a wave of mommy guilt. But this time I just laughed and said she actually started at 5 months old, and I thought that worked out great, because she got used to day care before she developed any real separation anxiety. I know that Pumpkin is thriving, and she started day care at the same time. I haven't seen any data to make me think that high quality day care is likely to have a negative impact on my girls' development. And I love Sarah Hrdy's hypothesis that humans have always been collective breeders. So I don't feel guilty about putting my girls in day care.
So much of the mommy guilt I see around me (and feel myself) is based on things that probably don't matter. I don't think our kids will look back on their childhoods and say "gee, I'm sure I would be healthier today if my mom had made the baby food from scratch" or "if only my mom had found time to do more art projects with me, I'm sure I would be more successful." I think what matters is that we love our kids, and do our best to meet their needs. And there are as many different ways to do that as there are families, so why should we feel guilty if some other mother is doing it differently than we are?
At work, I will absolutely try to rearrange my schedule to stay for a late meeting if I think there is a valid reason for it. If I think the meeting is being held late because someone is too lazy to find a better solution, I decline to attend. I will log on and work after the girls are in bed if I have work to do that I think is important. I won't do it for busy work that someone else thinks they need right away- particularly if they didn't give me much time to get it done. There is an old saying in IT: "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."
I think the key to making this approach succeed at work is to do it without apologies. Sure, I'll say I'm sorry that I can't make the meeting- but I won't offer to rearrange the child care situation unless the person convinces me that this meeting is important and really needs to happen after 5. The problem with guilt is that it makes you second guess yourself. And it makes you send the signal to other people that you think you are in the wrong. You aren't. You're allowed to have a life outside of work. Get your work done. Be professional, and try to help others get their work done when you can reasonably do so. And just assume that this is enough. Don't apologize or feel guilty for not doing more- if you do, other people will pick up on that guilt. And maybe they will start to think that you should be doing more.
I have definitely been very lucky in my bosses since becoming a mother. They have all judged me on my productivity and not my face time. But I have also had a total of five different bosses at two different companies in the time since Pumpkin was born. So maybe it is not all luck? Maybe part of the recipe for success* as a working mom is to let go of the guilt, and just assume that our best is good enough.
*To me, success is being happy in my life, and feeling like I am raising kids who have a good chance to go on and be happy in their lives. It is not necessarily all work-related success- but if I felt constantly thwarted at work, I doubt I'd be very happy.
Also, I am not AT ALL judging anyone else's life decisions. We're all so different, living such different lives- what would I know about what is the right thing for someone else to do? I'm just putting this out there as an observation that I have made about the insidious effect of guilt.
Finally, yes, I really do know how lucky I have been. I know some people have terrible bosses, etc and all I can say there is that I hope you can find a way to find a better job. No one should have to put up with unrealistic expectations at work.